The Filet-O-Fish Crawled So Vegetarians Could Walk

+ the religious origins of a wildly popular sandwich

I am excited to share the debut of Gastro-nomics, my new column at Medium’s pop-biz magazine, Marker. It’s set to run twice a month and will cover the intersection of food, business and culture.

I did my best to quickly squander any credibility by making my first column about the Filet-O-Fish. But there’s more to it than you think. So here’s the thing:

Whether you realize it or not, the country is fish sandwich crazy right now. Popeyes just launched one. Wendy’s introduced a revamped one last month. Major chains and small mom-and-pops alike are promoting fish as vigorously as Crown Publishing is NOT promoting Andrew Cuomo’s book right now. (Went there.)

But the unheralded part about the fish sandwich trend is, well, its religious origins and context. This fish mania happens every spring during Lent when millions of Catholics abstain from eating meat. And it all goes back to the Filet-O-Fish. From the piece:

The story begins back in the 1960s when a McDonald’s franchisee in Cincinnati named Lou Groen faced a pressing dilemma. Each week, his heavily Catholic consumer base would customarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays, leaving him with little foot traffic one day a week and jeopardizing his business. To find an alternative that would keep his store afloat, Groen took inspiration from a fish sandwich at a nearby restaurant and created his own battered version with tartar sauce.

In the piece I get into how the process of bringing the sandwich to market was both funny and a bit involved, but McDonald’s now sells 300 million Filet-O-Fishes a year(!), despite the company historically struggling with how market the sandwich on the merits of its appeal. (Note the surprisingly below!)

Anyway, once you become aware of the Lenten season fish sandwich craze, you can’t unsee it. But it’s a fascinating story in part because it’s one of the early mainstream American acknowledgments of a value-driven dietary preference.

And now, there’s never been a better time to be a fussy eater.

Other media: The wildest Filet-O-Fish commercial from the 1970s(?).